Framing the Green Revolution

By Keith Kloor | February 8, 2014 9:07 am

A straightforward definition from Wikipedia:

Green revolution refers to  to a series of research, development, and technology transfer initiatives, occurring between the 1940s and the late 1960s, that increased agriculture production worldwide, particularly in the developing world, beginning most markedly in the late 1960s.

The initiatives, led by Norman Borlaug, the “Father of the Green Revolution” credited with saving over a billion people from starvation, involved the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of management techniques, distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to farmers.

Can we agree that this was, on balance, a good thing? You know, kinda like the industrial revolution. Yes, the latter created new problems that had to be addressed–there were pros and cons–but would you rather go back to living in a pre-industrial society?

The same holds true for the green revolution. It’s fine to acknowledge its downsides, as Robert Zeigler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute, does here in the current issue of Cosmos magazine:  

By the late 1970s and early 1980s the shortcomings of the early phase of the Green Revolution were becoming clear. The most serious were overuse of pesticides and fertiliser and the inevitable transformations of the rural sector where many, many gained but some, especially those in marginal environments, lost out.

This led to a reassessment of the Green Revolution’s legacy in various circles. Zeigler notes:

A backlash began among leftist academics who viewed the Green Revolution as a way for capitalist governments and multinational corporations to subjugate small farmers. This view was helped by the fact that some oppressive West-leaning governments were avid champions of the Green Revolution.

As the worst examples of the Green Revolution’s side effects became manifest, environmental concerns became part of the mainstream consciousness, culminating ultimately in the United Nations Rio conference of 1992. But that conference framed a false dichotomy that continues to this day, between a healthy environment and idyllic, contented farmers on one side and a high yielding agriculture on the other.

Those who viewed the downsides of the Green Revolution through a certain ideological lens would go on to oppose new beneficial agricultural technologies. As Zeigler observes,

the strange brew of anti-corporate sentiment, extreme environmentalism, romanticised traditional organic but land-hungry agriculture and fear of new technologies boiled over to create a powerful anti-technology backlash. The extreme regulations for GMO crops demanded by self-proclaimed protectors of the environment, had the perverse result that only the largest multinationals could afford to develop such crops. Predictably, this resulted in the same camp denouncing the growing domination of agriculture by multinationals. As costs for developing crop varieties escalated, the few seed companies that could afford the work focused only on areas with large markets. The marginal farmers were once again excluded.

This time, though, who is to blame?

It’s fine to debate the legacy of the Green Revolution. But we should also be clear-eyed about the legacy of the anti-GMO movement, which is already becoming clear.

  • mem_somerville

    This is the strangest thing to me:

    My firsthand experience with impoverished small farmers in the
    developing world was placing me at odds with my ideological brethren.

    So many of the researchers on this issue have first-hand experience that is completely discounted by the urban foodies. And those urban foodies came from the the same environmentalist pedigree that the scientists did (Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Muir, Thoreau, the Whole Earth Catalog…et al).

    I can’t understand why we can’t seem to find more common ground on this.

    • Buddy199

      Irrational prejudices tend to wear away once you make direct contact with reality, which the urbanites suffer from a lack of, as opposed to the field researchers.

  • J M

    I think Keith is right when he talks about the Church of the Organic. A religion you can practice by shopping. God, you’re so dead.

    However, I am fascinated by the opportunities that GM can offer for plant development. We now have GM plants that industrial agriculture has developed to increase yields and cut costs.

    When plant scientists turn their attention to other problems (with more environmental focus), there is potential to create a second Green revolution.

    This one caught my eye:

    “The John Innes Centre will lead a $9.8m research project to investigate whether it is possible to initiate a symbiosis between cereal crops and bacteria. The symbiosis could help cereals access nitrogen from the air to improve yields.

    The five-year research project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, could have most immediate benefit for subsistence farmers.

    “During the Green Revolution, nitrogen fertilisers helped triple cereal yields in some areas,” said Professor Giles Oldroyd from JIC. “But these chemicals are unaffordable for small-scale farmers in the developing world.”

    “We’re excited about the long-term potential of this research to transform the lives of small farmers who depend on agriculture for their food and livelihoods,” said Katherine Kahn, senior program officer of Agricultural Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We need innovation for farmers to increase their productivity in a sustainable way so that they can lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Improving access to nitrogen could dramatically boost the crop yields of farmers in Africa.”

    The focus of the investigation will be maize, the most important staple crop for small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. Parallel studies in the wild grass Setaria viridis, which has a smaller genome and shorter life cycle, will speed up the rate of discovery. Discoveries will be applicable to all cereal crops including wheat, barley and rice.

    http://news.jic.ac.uk/2012/07/cereals-self-fertilise/

  • David Skurnick

    The backlash against the green revolution has been pretty effective. Having saved over a billion people from starvation, Norman Borlaug ought to be considered one of the greatest heroes of all times. However, despite his Nobel Prize, he’s relatively unknown. And, as Keith points out, some even consider him more a villain than a hero.

  • Loren Eaton

    IMHO, the Green Revolution did something that never would have happened if the status quo had been maintained or God forbid, they had switched to something akin to a totally organic system….it bought time while allowing hundreds of millions of people to survive. To criticize it after all this time is so much Monday morning quarterbacking.
    No system of agriculture is completely sustainable or the final solution to all the issues that will be faced.

  • Buddy199

    What was so idyllic about pre-industrial life? It was no Walt Disney movie, as greens imagine. Born into feudalism, you could look forward to a short life of back-breaking subsistence labor, regular periods of starvation, plagues, high infant mortality and no hope of your family ever changing their station in life from one generation to the next.
    The ironic truth is that socialism cannot function without a strong underlying capitalist economic system whose spoils can be redistributed in the name of “justice”. In the same way, the anti-industrial eco-paradise that greens imagine could never survive in large scale, but rather only as a small island supported within a larger modern capitalist industrial world. Without that larger supporting structure of industrialism and capitalism the green paradise would in reality be nothing more than medieval feudalism.

    • JH

      “socialism cannot function without a strong underlying capitalist economic system whose spoils can be redistributed in the name of “justice”

      Oh so true. Here in Seattle, the >$100B in cash that Microsoft, Boeing and Amazon are sitting on (from their pillaging adventures elsewhere in the world) allow us a great deal of leeway for “social justice.” For now.

      But I confess I suspect the Seattle mentality has long been the standard of human societies – pillage indiscriminately elsewhere, wail about social justice at home.

  • JonFrum

    Marx understood ‘the idiocy of rural life.’ His progeny in the Green movement have conveniently forgotten his words, and gone back to Rousseau for their anthropology.

  • Michael Fons

    I love the thought of genetically modifying crops to be drought tolerant, resistant to disease, healthier, tastier, and to use less pesticide. But, I’m not a big fan of genetically modifying crops to be resistant to herbicide so they can be drenched in herbicide. So, I tend to side with the anti-GMO movement on many issues because most of the GMO crops of today are herbicide resistant types. I prefer herbicide alternatives such as solid steaming, cover crops, landscape fabric, and mechanical weeding.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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